Petit Pays is Gael Faye’s first novel. It tells the story of Gabriel, who now living in France, is haunted by his troubling past, a past that has its beginnings in Burundi where he was born to a French father and a Rwandan mother. Petit Pays is a collection of Gabriel’s recollections, of the peace that had once been, of the pain of growing up too quickly and of the war which replaced his home’s peaceful and eternal afternoons. A war which not only happened around him but also inside him.

La guerre, c’était peut-être ça, ne rien comprendre

Gael Faye tells his story through the eyes of the 10 year old Gabriel which I found effective in describing the beginnings of ethnic clashes both in Rwanda and Burundi because of the neutrality that comes with such a tender age.

Gabriel, who through out the story is referred to as Gaby, first experiences the effects of conflict in his home in Bujumbura when the endless quarrels of his parents result into their separation. His mother, Yvonne, longs to return to her birth country and can’t seem to come to terms with the comfortable life she lives with her family in Bujumbura. She simply can’t stand the thought of forgetting where she came from.

Most of the story is set in and around Gaby’s neighborhood. It is here that he spends his afternoons with his friends. It is here that he and his friends, the ‘Kinanira Boys’ steal, sell and devour their neighbors’ mangoes, secretly smoke packs of cigarettes and share their first beers. It is here that the Kinanira Boys grow into the Kinanira Gang and finally it is here that despite fleeing Burundi to live in France, that Gaby’s heart remains.

Gael Faye captures well the problem of identity with Gaby’s character. More so because Gaby is ‘metis’. His physical being acts as an important reminder of unity despite his incessant battle with the pressure to choose sides. At one point in the book, Gaby expresses this fight to find himself through these beautiful words:

“La guerre, sans qu’on lui demande, se charge toujours de nous trouver un ennemi”

Gaby’s friends, when the genocide in Rwanda begins, are quick to turn against the Burundian ‘Hutu’ because they consider them to be one with those responsible for the Rwandan killings. They soon become gang-affiliated and Gaby is pressured to become one of them. However, Gaby instead grows distant to his friends, he feels more and more the corrupting nature of ethnic tensions.

As a way to escape his troubling reality, Gaby uses books and letter-writing as a form of escapism. It is his letters that give us an intimate account of what the war in Rwanda and political tensions in Burundi are doing to his people, how it is tearing his once comfortable life apart. The most moving of all the letters is his letter to his late cousin, Christian, who was killed during the Rwandan genocide. Gael Faye makes use of these letters to describe the process of trying to make sense of something as complex and terrible as a genocide.

The political clashes in Burundi and the Rwandan genocide have an inescapable effect on Gaby. He loses so much. He loses his father shortly after fleeing to France and loses his mother (albeit not literally) because of her trauma after the Rwandan genocide. She’s never herself again, she goes mad. Gael Faye’s intention with this book isn’t to paint a gray and grim image of war. It is instead to demonstrate just how resilient the love for one’s country can be. Gaby despite everything he experiences at a young age, never succumbs to hate for his country and you have to admit in difficult times such as those portrayed in this book, it isn’t a very easy thing to do.

Gaby holds on to the beautiful times he had way back when his country knew peace. Gael Faye’s mellow, sound-rich descriptions of such a time provide a sharp contrast against the mute, uncertain period which is to follow. It also serves as a subtle symbol of hope. Gaby’s inability to forget the good times implies the possiblity to reproduce them is not lost. Hope for the ‘Petit Pays’ is not lost.

“Si l’on est d’un pays, si l’on y est né, comme qui dirait: natif natal. eh bien, on l’a dans les yeux, la peau, les mains, avec la chevelure de ses arbres, la chair de sa terre, les os de ses pierres, le sang de ses rivières, son ciel, sa saveur, ses hommes et ses femmes…” — Jacques Roumain

Mutsinzi is a writer for Mellowviews and software developer.